Shopping season’s start is a mixed bag for small biz
There was only one certainty about Black Friday this year, and that was that CambridgeSide Galleria shops got more business than the shops arrayed along Cambridge sidewalks, including those of Harvard Square.
Black Friday, named for a store leaving red ink behind for profit-marking black ink, is the Friday after Thanksgiving, widely considered to be busiest shopping day of the year — and virtually guaranteed to be so by retailer sales, dawn openings and late closings. This year guerilla Web sites made it a surer bet by posting retailer sales plans long before companies wanted them revealed. It primed shoppers and gave the day even more publicity than usual.
CambridgeSide was choked with shoppers. The aisles in some stores approached claustrophobic.
Store managers were pleased.
“This year’s going to be great,” said Victor Gutierrez, manager of the mall’s Payless ShoeSource for three years. “This has been the best out of the three years. It’s like black and white. I feel like I’m going back before [the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001].”
Over at KB Toys, which on Friday gave away two $10 gift cards with a $100 purchase and lowered the bar Saturday and yesterday to two for a $50 purchase, district manager Scott Prusak downplayed Black Friday, but did so amid a sea of harried parents and stray children. The day was “very good,” he said, and “pretty consistent,” but he wasn’t ready to call it among the best overall of the eight years he’d been there.
Things were still busy in Harvard Square, but shopkeepers shrugged off the Black Friday effect. For most, the rule is simply that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas draws shoppers, and the closer to Christmas — Christmas still being the predominant gift-giving holiday in December — the more frenzied the shopping. For the square’s tobacconist, Leavitt & Peirce, the bulk of total sales for the year largely relies on the last 10 days before Christmas, owner Paul Macdonald said.
At men’s clothier Stonestreets, the mood was also one of tolerant, and quiet, patience. The store was silent at midmorning. “Men’s clothing is solely driven by cold weather,” said Bill Hootstein, the store’s owner. “Men need four or five days of consecutive cold before they realize, ‘Oh, hey, I need a coat.’”
Over at Ann Taylor, Christy Lindsey was suggesting the opposite — that the sudden 24-degree cold was keeping women shoppers away.
But the overall suggestion was simply that shopping in Harvard Square is too different from the mall experience to benefit from Black Friday. Families sleep in before heading to the square, Hootstein said, and Lindsey said her Ann Taylor was “more of an afternoon store.”
At Crate & Barrel, manager Mike Zetlan was “pleasantly surprised” by his Black Friday turnout, but he noted “Harvard Square is definitely more laid back. At every other store, you’re pushing people back, [but] this is nice and relaxed, the way Cambridge is supposed to be.”
Acknowledging this, some stores simply don’t try as hard. Women’s clothing shop Serendipity offered a relatively modest 15 percent off, for instance, while Black Friday sales are notorious for brutal price slashing intended to get people into stores to pick up regularly priced items along with the loss leaders — $400 laptops being a notorious example at Wal-Mart this year.
At Harvard Square’s Adidas Originals Cambridge, there were markdowns of 25 percent on selected items and $20 off others. But last year it was 40 percent off everything, store manager Marc Qualters said. And the sign taped to the stone column outside wasn’t for a Black Friday sale, but for the ongoing student discount that Qualters said has helped pick up sales this year.
“Black Friday as a whole has been kind of a disappointment,” he said. “We should have a lot more people. If we were in a downtown area, we probably would have more.”
The day, several store owners and managers said, is meant for malls, where the tendency of people to flock can be self-reinforcing. For every Tara Paul, a Belmont teen shopping at CambridgeSide with friends who reasoned that “Lots of people come here. It’s a known mall,” there are people such as Damian Siebert and Liz Canter, coincidentally also from Belmont. Like Paul, they were at CambridgeSide on Friday; unlike the teen, they said they tended to shop outside malls, in Harvard Square or on Newbury Street. They were at CambridgeSide, they said, because they’d been given a gift certificate that could be used only in a mall.
The trends are hard to pin down.
The National Retail Federation projects a 6 percent rise in sales this holiday season, a 1 percent rise from its guess in September. Ed Dworsky, the Somerville creator of the consumerworld.org site, is “frankly surprised” by the number. The economy is shaky, gas prices remain high and real estate — a national obsession for years — is a question mark.
His visit to a suburban Toys “R” Us on Friday found a nearly empty store with cashiers clustered for a chat, hardly the frenzy reported elsewhere.
“I’m not as convinced as the retailers are this is going to be a gangbusters time,” Dworsky said.
But while Black Friday generally benefits mall stores, and neighborhood stores probably suffer, Dworsky noted that there “could be some type of reaction from some type of shoppers who deliberately want to steer clear of the malls, especially if it’s a nice day, because they know crowds will be nothing like what the malls will be drawing.”
Indeed, Leavitt & Peirce’s Macdonald sat down complaining that there’s “no shoppers today. They talk about Black Friday, but it’s actually a deader Friday than the rest of the year.” He stood up several minutes later to find the sales floor below had become pleasantly crowded with shoppers.